Saturday, March 04, 2006


Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England: "Illegitimacy had always been stigmatized in English Society. Since the 17th and the 18th centuries, the negative attitude toward bastards was evident in legislation which denied them assistance from the poor rates.

Justices were merely to see that the parents supported their child, not to enforce morality. Rates being administered in a more benevolent manner than intended, a rise in illegitimacy, and an increase in the number of forced marriages all collided with the Evangelical and Utilitarian philosophies of Victorian England; in 1834 the Poor Laws were reformed. Poverty and illegitimacy were moral issues which needed to be remedied, and the New Poor Law was designed to restore virtue and stimulate thrifty, industrious workers. The Bastardy Clause absolved the putative father of any responsibility for his bastard child and socially and economically victimized the mother in an effort to restore female morality. Its enactment fomented the growth of a modern and murderous form of an old institution, baby farming, which preyed on the infants of these humiliated and alienated mothers. Despite the tremendous toll it took on the lives of innocent children, the Victorians' fear of government intervention into social reform and the Victorian ideal of the inviolability of the family prevented its reform until the end of the 19th century. "
On February 15, 1865, the body of Mary Jane Harris' four-month-old son was found wrapped up in a copy of the Western Times beside a road in Torquay. Miss Harris had farmed out the child to Mrs. Winsor for 3s a week, and, at first, resisted Mrs. Winsor's offer to dispose of the child. When the burden of its support became too much she stood by and watched Charlotte Winsor smother her son and wrap his naked body in an old newspaper; the body was later dumped on the roadside.

Testimony revealed that Mrs. Winsor conducted a steady trade of boarding illegitimate infants for a few shillings a week or putting them away for a set fee of 3 to 5 pounds. <41>

The public pressure for reform, however, died down soon after Winsor was sent to prison. Dr. John Brendon Curgenven and Ernest Hart, along with a group of their associates in London's Harveian Society, remained outraged, however, and committed their organization to the fight for reform.


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